Kramer vs. Kramer
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), a New York advertising art director, comes home from work one evening to tell his wife and son that he has just had "one of the five best days of his life." His career is on the fast track to success and his upper east-side family life seems picture-perfect. That same evening, his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), tells Ted that she is leaving him and their son (Justin Henry), to "find herself." His life suddenly in disarray, Ted is forced to make some career sacrifices and focus on becoming the boy's sole care-giver, a role that at first emphasizes the emotional divide between father and son. Eventually, the two grow close and reestablish themselves as a family when Joanna unexpectedly returns to claim her son, igniting a bitter custody battle.
Kramer vs. Kramer is based on the 1977 novel by Avery Corman and was adapted for the screen by Robert Benton. At first the film producers wanted the renowned Francois Truffaut to direct, but Benton insisted on being allowed to direct as well. The producers then agreed to let Benton make his directorial debut with Nestor Almendros as his cinematographer. A Cuban expatriate, Almendros had previously worked with Truffaut on several films and was added to the crew very early in production so that he had input on creative decisions. The resulting piece won Benton both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars and put him on the map as one of the most sought after writer/directors of the day.
Hoffman also landed an Academy Award for his remarkable performance. According to Vincent Canby's New York Times film review, "Mr. Hoffman is splendid in one of the two or three best roles of his career. It's a delicately witty performance, funny and full of feeling that never slops into the banal." This win was his first Best Actor Oscar despite three other nominations for his performances in The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Lenny (1974). It was also said that Hoffman assisted with the editing and many of the rewrites on Kramer vs. Kramer.
Starring opposite Hoffman as Joanna Kramer, Meryl Streep transformed her minor role into a major performance and won unanimous praise from the critics, just as she had the previous year in The Deer Hunter (1978), which won the actress her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Originally the film's producers wanted Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels for the part of the mother. They believed Streep would work best for Phyllis, the character JoBeth Williams ended up playing, because she had never carried a cinematic lead despite several popular theater and supporting film roles. "In their thinking, Meryl was not yet a bankable enough commodity to play Hoffman's wife," author Diana Maychick wrote in her biography, Meryl Streep. So Streep met with Benton and Hoffman to audition for the part of Phyllis four days after her wedding to sculptor Donald J. Gummer. Once they saw her, however, they thought she was absolutely perfect for the role of Joanna.
Streep ended up rewriting most of her part to make her character more sympathetic, including her entire courtroom speech. She did "research" by reading women's magazines and talking to her mother. Hoffman reportedly thought she was trying to upstage him and argued with her over many of the changes. Eventually though, she won him over and Joanna was made into a much more sympathetic and complex character. Hoffman later told Maychick, "Yes I hated her guts, but I respected her." He realized that Streep "was not fighting for herself, but for the scene. She sticks with her guns and doesn't let anyone mess with her when she thinks she's right." Streep's performance earned her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that year her first Academy Award.
Screen newcomer Justin Henry also received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Kramer vs. Kramer, making him the youngest actor ever to be nominated for any Oscar category. According to Susan Sackett in The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, "Justin Henry was just six years old and a novice actor when he was signed for the part of Billy Kramer. He was selected from a field of over 200 candidates, with Dustin Hoffman helping to make the final selection for the right boy to play his son, even screen testing with 40 finalists before choosing Justin. The senior actor spent much time coaching the boy for their scenes together. "The first few days his concentration was horrible," said Hoffman, according to Inside Oscar. "He kept looking at the camera...by the third week, he was becoming an actor."
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe
Director: Robert Benton
Screenplay: Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Production Design: Paul Sylbert
Music: Herb Harris, John Kander
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O'Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Bill Moor (Gressen).
by E. Lacey Rice